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Can Dreams Come True? The 1963 March on Washington Gives it a Whirl

Barbara Andrews shares her thoughts on the civil right movement
August 28, 1963 was a day of many dreams. It was the day when A. Philip Randolph's 22-year dream of a huge protest march on Washington became a reality. It was a day when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke passionately about his dream that one day his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." It was a day when over 250,000 people descended upon D.C. with a dream of equal rights for all.

"It will be one of our greatest American experiences-creative, constructive, inspirational," predicted Randolph. He was the lead organizer of what became one of the largest peaceful actions, of the civil rights movement: the 1963 March on Washington.

This was not the first time Randolph planned such an event. Back in 1941, when World War II was breaking out, the number of jobs in the defense industry increased dramatically. Randolph knew that African-Americans would be shut out from these positions unless the government strongly encouraged companies to hire African-Americans. In order to "shake up America," and to stop discrimination, in the defense industry and armed forces Randolph found a creative solution - a huge protest march in the nation's capital - Washington, D.C. The threat of a huge protest led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign an Executive Order calling for fair employment practices in the defense industry. This step towards positive change caused Randolph to cancel the march.

Two decades later, the dream resurfaced. As Barbara Andrews, the curator at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis puts it: "It was an effort whose time had come." The economic gap between blacks and whites had widened. Civil rights leaders decided to show the nation that their cause included more than just the right to sit, on a bus. There were many economic and political rights involved, such as equal access to education, jobs, and decent housing. There was a need to make these issues clear to the American public, but to do so without any violence or bloodshed.

Therefore, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was formed. Randolph became the leader of this massive demonstration of economic justice. By this time, the 1960s, it was not unheard of for large protests to happen. Plus, the idea of non-violent direct action had become associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike FDR, President John F. Kennedy did not do anything to stop the march.

here would have been singing and sign holding at the Washington Monument
Can you imagine the logistics involved in moving hundreds of thousands of people into a city, feeding and organizing them and then moving them out again? It was no easy task. The organizers had to think of everything, they would need, from public address systems to doctors and nurses. Local churches and government agencies provided first aid units, mobile toilets, blankets, rest facilities, trashcans, and drinking water. The organizers even provided instruction manuals that detailed everything from transportation information to what to pack in box lunches (the suggestion was a PBJ sandwich, apple, cake and a drink).

One of the main objectives of the march was to pressure Congress into passing pending civil rights legislation. The event was based on a new form of lobbying , - instead of going to the Capitol or the White House, the organizers invited the Congressmen to come to them. Of course, not all Congressmen were very receptive. Senator Olin Johnston from South Carolina believed that the march would amount to a mob scene and would be dominated by criminals and crackpots. , He sent a telegram in response to his invitation, stating, "I positively will not attend… You certainly will have no influence on any member of Congress, including myself."

Senator Johnston may not have been there, but believe me there was no lack of people. The marchers hit D.C. by storm, arriving in the morning and assembling at the Washington Monument. They had signs with slogans, such as "We demand decent housing NOW!" and "We march for jobs for all NOW!" At noon, they marched to the Lincoln Memorial for a session of singing, speeches and prayers.

'What made the march was that black people voted that day with their feet.' -Bayard Rustin
The speakers at the event were an all-star cast-from Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP to the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis. The event organizers wanted Lewis to deliver a message that wasn't so harsh or critical. To his own disappointment, Lewis toned down his speech. , Still, the speech was well received and the crowd burst out into applause when he declared, "We want our freedom and we want it now!"

The most famous words of that day came from Martin Luther King Jr. His inspirational "I Have a Dream" , speech captured the ears and the hearts of the American people. Click here to see the full text of the speech.

Looking back, with all of these amazing speeches and leaders involved, was the day an overwhelming success,? There were no instant results, but as Barbara explains, "so often we look for something to happen immediately, for some direct impact on the government, but the March was successful in raising an awareness of issues, relevant to African-Americans and many different peoples."

The March was a day of solidarity. It was an opportunity to mobilize support from the American public, and to allow ordinary men and women to participate in an extraordinary historical moment.

A peaceful day at the Lincoln Memorial
A year later, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was an extensive piece of legislation that incorporated many of the measures promoted at the March, such as an important ban on federal funds for programs that discriminated against blacks.

When I went to the Lincoln Memorial, it was a quiet and tranquil scene. Two women jogged by. An elderly couple sat on a bench nearby enjoying the sunny day. The geese waded in the reflecting pool. This was the extent of the action in the area. How incredible to think of the place buzzing with energy, and packed with people who had come from far and wide with a common vision of freedom. I pictured all of the major civil rights leaders of the time speaking in a unified voice that bellowed across the crowd.

I was not part of the March on Washington. I was not even alive then. I am going to guess that most of you weren't either. Barbara explains that even though she was alive, she was young and unaware, of all the issues going on during that time. So how can we become part of the dream? For Barbara, taking history classes and becoming friends with people from all different backgrounds are what first got her interested in civil rights and in such events as the March.

The idea of marching to Washington has continued on, especially in recent years. There was the Million Man March, the Million Family March, and the Millennium March on Washington for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

And people keep on marching.

Remember, the dream was equal rights and justice for all, not some. We owe it to the 250,000 marchers, we owe it to Philip Randolph and Dr. King…and we owe it to ourselves, to make this dream come true.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Organizing the revolution and the future
Jennifer - No, it's not a warzone. It's Selma, Alabama Stephanie - Get on the bus, it's time for equality
Stephanie - Riders on the wave of justice and equality
Jennifer - Crushing the lie of "separate but equal"